Long Island wineries are rapidly innovating to survive as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the nation, choking tourism and pressuring layoffs in businesses that are more like families.
From at-home wine tastings to touchless drive-throughs, our New York vineyards are doing whatever they can to stay afloat.
"These are very uncertain times for us. We, like the entire country, are doing our part in trying not to add to the spread,” Raphael Vineyard special events coordinator Julie Vergari says. The Peconic vineyard was forced to close it doors on March 10, when coronavirus made its first North Fork appearance.
Since the outbreak reached Long Island’s local wine country, wineries have been following the recommended CDC guidelines. The tasting rooms remain closed until further notice, open for “to-go” orders only. The saving grace for most -- a mix of online sales and originality.
“Online orders and delivery service will help keep our full and part-time team active,” says Gabriella Macari, who has worked at the family business Macari Vineyards & Winery since the beginning in 1995. Not only has Macari suspended tasting operations, but the vineyard has postponed several upcoming events. To account for the changes, Macari has designed a ‘Walk-Thru Wine Window’ located around their deck.
Macari is not the only one pioneering ideas during these challenging times. Wölffer Estate, located in Sagaponack, is now also offering a drive-thru option. This innovation will help maintain retail business, provide jobs and ensure delivery in the safest way, Wölffer Estate marketing manager Emily Ely says. “We opened the first ‘Handsfree Wine Drive-Thru’ where customers can pull up their cars, select wines and swipe their cards as we load trunks without having to get out of the car.”
Pindar Damianos, one of three siblings running Pindar Vineyards, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, is even considering “virtual wine-tasting” if the shutdown continues. Damianos has considered producing a podcast to provide an interactive at-home personalized tasting between connoisseur and customer. For many winemakers, it’s not just about bottle sales but providing the full experience, which includes enjoying a fresh glass surrounded by vast farmland, smelling the crisp air and listening to live music.
According to the Office of the New York State Comptroller report in 2018, New York vineyards covered 35,000 acres of farmland in 2017 and produced 187,000 tons of grapes, ranking the state in 3rd place just below California and Washington. A key component to economic growth for East End residents, the wine industry produces about 500,000 cases and hosts around 1.2 million visitors annually, based on the Cornell Cooperative Extension Suffolk County.
More than 30,000 tri-state residents have tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of Wednesday afternoon. Long Island has over 4,700 cases total, between Nassau County with 2,869 and Suffolk County with 1,880. The number of COVID-19 deaths in New York state stood at 271 as of Wednesday and was only predicted to grow rapidly, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
With this growrth grows the concern for the livelihoods of winery staff throughout the North Fork. Many employees have had to file for unemployment, the wineries said, while others staff have stayed and continue to manage farms and online orders. Vineyard owners seem split on the industry’s future if the shutdown were to continue past Spring.
Among Pindar Vineyards, Jason’s Vineyard and Dulk Walk Vineyards, Damianos employs over 60 people, excluding part-time staff. Several employees have been working with his family for over 20 years. It’s more than just business – it’s personal. “It’s hard because these people are like family,” says Damianos. “If the Governor or President was talking about a setback until sometime in August, if that’s the case, there won’t be a wine industry – without the tourism.”
One thing remains certain amongst all wineries – farming operations continue.
“The growing season doesn’t stop. We’re doing everything to keep financially solvent. The foreseeable future may look bleak, but we are doing our best,” says Kareem Massoud, winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards.
While overhanging plans remain uncertain, farmers focus efforts on the vines, preparing for the upcoming season, “Regardless of the crisis, we're farmers — maintaining soil and vineyard health is still and always will be a top priority,” Macari says.
The message that hits home is supporting small business – buy local. Damianos sums it up: “Everybody helps each other - wineries, restaurants, fisheries – it all co-exists out here… Because we’re not able to offer everything like we usually do, please support your local businesses by retailers.”